at the races Why can’t I sleep after a race or hard workout?

Why can’t I sleep after a race or hard workout?

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25,000 runners took to the start line at the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon in 2017.

You’re totally exhausted, and in a proverbial rut because of a hard effort, a race or workout, earlier in the day. It’s nighttime, you’re lying in bed, so tired that even the thought of getting out of bed seems daunting. Sleep is as important as ever in this moment, for recovery purposes. This could be you.

And yet, you remain wide awake, unable to fall asleep for minutes, if not hours. What’s going on?

“I do see that [sleeplessness after hard exercise] a bit with the athletes I work with,” says Dr. Amy Bender, a sleep expert who holds a PhD in experimental psychology from Washington State University, an adjunct professor in the faculty of kinesiology at the University of Calgary. Bender has worked with hundreds of national-calibre athletes and published “The Clinical Validation of the Athlete Sleep Screening Questionnaire” which provides framework to determine sleep assessment.

Why it happens

Sleeplessness post-hard effort can in part be due to the body’s release of chemicals including, but not limited to, adrenaline and cortisol, Bender says, which makes it more difficult to sleep if levels remain high. Exercise-related sleeplessness may also stem from muscle pain or soreness from exercise itself. (Post-marathon aches, anyone?)

Consider too that timing of a hard effort could be a factor, as your body needs adequate time to cool down from a spike in core temperature. So, a run in the evening may leave you wide awake while a morning run may not have the same effect, given the additional hours for your body to recover throughout the day. There are certain habitual limitations to this, depending on your work schedule, and when you’re able to get a run in. Fortunately, for the sake of sleep and if you find this can be a problem for you, morning races are more common than night races.

What to do if it happens and how to prevent it

Bender suggests having a consistent bedtime routine, or a to-do list to off-load your mind and relax, both of which can act as a signal that it’s time for your body to sleep. Such a routine may consist of putting away electronic devices with bright screens in the lead-up to bedtime and breathing exercises.

Alternatively, one can perform certain cognitive techniques, like the cognitive shuffle. Simply, the cognitive shuffle involves taking a neutral word, like ‘bedtime,’ and imagining an object or thing beginning with each letter repeatedly until you need to move on to the next letter. The purpose of the exercise is to scramble your thoughts. Repeat the exercise for each letter of the word. Chances are, Bender says, you won’t make it to the final letter.

Last call

Alternatively, take a warm shower or warm bath an hour before bedtime. Bender says that although your core temperature will rise, it will just as quickly cool down. Making sure one’s bedroom is dark and cool, think cave-like, because that’s also helpful.

Have your own nighttime routine that helps you sleep? Share them!